The 5 Big Anti-Housing Falsehoods

by on October 16, 2018

Photo by Tony Webster

Facts Get In Way of Anti-Housing Arguments

While researching my new book, Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America, I discovered that opponents of housing across the nation housing opponents make the same arguments.  And what unites opposition arguments in Austin, Berkeley, Cambridge, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and other cities is that they are largely untrue.

Here’s what I see as the five biggest anti-housing falsehoods.

1. Allowing Apartments “Bulldozes” Neighborhoods

The most common argument used by homeowners opposing new apartments in their neighborhood is that it will  “bulldoze” the neighborhood. As a former Minneapolis City Council member recently described a plan to allow fourplexes in that city, “it creates a circumstance where savvy developers can go in and put property together and bulldoze homes to build. That’s what it does.”

Well, actually the facts from multiple cities show a very different outcome when homes are bulldozed. Typical is what occurred in Austin’s onetime working class neighborhood of Crestview, where 22 homes have been demolished and rebuilt since 2010. A resident described what is happening:

A smaller, affordable house is replaced by a home triple or more in value. We had a more balanced mix of homeowners and renters, but we’re now losing a lot of our renters as the housing becomes less affordable.”

Remarkably, Austin homeowners continue to associate apartments with bulldozers when of the 2,370 homes demolished in the past decade 97% have been replaced by larger homes. 97%! Once affordable homes are being bulldozed not to create more affordable housing through multi-unit buildings, but to build mansions.

Thanks to the inspired work of Philip Jankowski of the Austin-American Statesman, the big lie underlying Austin’s anti-housing activism has been exposed. I’ve seen similar reports on demolition patterns in single family home neighborhoods in other cities. My parents older home in Los Angeles was demolished for a new mansion, as were many in their neighborhood.  So much for claims that exclusionary zoning preserves neighborhood “character.”

2. You Can Fight Climate Change While Opposing New Apartments

National environmental groups promote infill housing because sprawl causes the long car commutes that ignite greenhouse gas emissions. But cities are filled with boomer homeowners who identify as “green” despite opposing infill housing. They feel they deserve this mantle because they drive Priuses, recycle, use solar panels, support parks, do not use plastic straws and support pro-environment Democrats.

These steps are good but do not outweigh these homeowners’ promotion of sprawl. Pushing a fifty unit building out of Berkeley into the suburbs could alone add fifty plus cars to nearby highways. It’s as if homeowners feel that externalizing the source of greenhouse gas emissions outside their city means it doesn’t count against their own carbon footprint.

Sorry, but climate change doesn’t work that way. Denying housing in neighborhood after neighborhood amidst rising population means newcomers who are not rich are forced to live a long distance from their job. If boomer homeowners could view infill housing with the same environmental lens as they do recycling or driving electric cars, opposition to new housing would quickly fall off.

  1. All New For-Profit Housing is “Luxury”

Opponents of for-profit housing seek to undermine its broader value by designating all projects as “luxury.” And while there are projects that are truly luxury, a 2017 study by the Urban Institute found that only 10% of the of San Francisco home market in the prior eight years had seen new homes sell for at least $1 million, the target for “luxury.”

So where is the chief source of luxury housing in the city? Existing single family homes.

I describe in Generation Priced Out how those benefiting from skyrocketing single family home values are often among the quickest to oppose new housing in their neighborhood. And the strategy of restricting housing supply has worked: virtually every house in Noe Valley, the Haight-Ashbury, Bernal Heights, Alamo Square and many other San Francisco neighborhoods have all become “luxury” housing. This has not stopped activists in such neighborhoods from opposing new housing that will sell for less than existing homes.

Nor is it true that most new apartments are “luxury.” Sightline’s Dan Bertolet recently cited City of Seattle figures showing that the average rent for new apartments built from 2010-2017 is $2077 compared to $1752 for apartments citywide. That $300 gap is hardly a luxury price difference.

There is no question cities need less truly luxury housing and more housing affordable to low-income people and the working and middle-class. But falsely depicting all projects as involving “luxury” units does not promote affordability.

  1. Housing Fails Without New Infrastructure

Opponents also routinely argue that cities lack the transit infrastructure to support new housing. Since the federal government refuses to adequately fund public transit and nearly every city has traffic problems, this seemingly urbanist argument resonates with some.

But if followed, not even 100% affordable housing would get built. And since housing is going to be built somewhere to address rising population, the “no housing without infrastructure” mantra is just another blueprint for suburban sprawl.

  1. Our City is “Built Out.”

This idea is that, as a candidate in Austin’s November mayor’s race put it, cities need to prioritize the people already here instead of worrying about housing newcomers.

If you bought your house over a decade ago and live in a quality neighborhood, you are likely pretty content with the way things are in your community. But what about the next generation? And what about immigrants, whose entry is strongly backed in the nation’s high housing cost cities?

It’s wrong to deny immigrants and the millennial working and middle-class the ability to live in a city because longtime residents want to pull up the drawbridge and stop building housing.  All of the dozen plus cities I focused on for my book have plenty of room for additional growth once exclusionary zoning laws are replaced by those promoting inclusion.

These are the top five false arguments I have heard most often. I look forward to hearing from others with ideas to  add to the list.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book, Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America,  is now available for pre-order from Amazon at a 33% discount.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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